As much of the globe has gone quiet with people sheltering in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, many have used this downtime for some self-reflection. I’ve been reading the thought pieces flooding the internet on how society should learn from its mistakes and how we must commit to doing better when the pandemic passes ― like sinners bargaining with God as they face a near-death experience.
But one thing shows little hope of changing when we finally emerge into our new world: fat phobia. And I’m not just fed up with it. I want to take you on a distance-learning journey about why this needs to stop once and for all.
In a time when we’re consuming media at record rates, there has also been an uptick in weight loss ads, frantic calls for us to begin home fitness routines, “The Biggest Loser” marathons and, of course, memes poking fun at the “Quarantine 15.”
The latter seems to be not only the most ubiquitous but also potentially the most harmful. Even friends I feel should know better are sharing “fat beach body” memes, counting calories or joking about “binging” on quarantine snacks, all during a period when we should just be grateful for life and focused on beating the coronavirus. (Please note that an extra scoop of ice cream is not “binging” and to suggest it is makes light of a real disease. Those with actual binge or bulimia disorders should seek professional help.)
It’s interesting to see that even in a pandemic, what a lot of folks are most afraid of is looking like me. As plus-size women have recently railed against the fat-shaming quarantine memes, we’ve been met with the same refrain: “Lighten up.” But it’s hard to take these memes as “harmless jokes” when you know that they’re perpetuating diet culture and may be fueling existing eating disorders or triggering women and men in recovery to relapse.
A few years ago, I became an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association, which was a natural fit with my work at the plus-size magazine SLiNK and my newfound role as a body-positive influencer. I knew I had a really messed-up past with diet culture, but what I didn’t know until I attended a NEDA event was that you can technically be anorexic while still being fat.
I have atypical anorexia, a subclinical disordered eating behavior, which means I fast for days on end ― barely consuming anything, even water. What’s more scary is that I tend to do this as a knee-jerk reaction to stress, often with no conscious awareness that I am parched and starving until I feel faint on day three or four.
Many of the same jokesters who are posting fat-girls-in-bikinis memes right now also seem to love a “lighthearted” nod toward anorexia and say things like “It would be so nice to forget to eat” and “Maybe now I can lose a few pounds in my quarantine.” Anorexia nervosa has a higher estimated mortality rate than the coronavirus. Gee, isn’t that “hilarious”?
I noticed all of this talk about bodies and eating and diets was triggering feelings of ugliness and worthlessness. I found myself having visceral reactions to these traumatizing “jokes” and I worried about my own mental health. And then, recently, amidst all the fat-trolling memes on Instagram, I came across a beacon of light called #MyQuarantineBody started by Anastasia Garcia aka @anastasiagphoto.
She asked influencers to post pics of ourselves in all of our curvy glory, as if the photos were divine offerings to our icon Lizzo. Models like Hunter McGrady joined the dialogue and I was also able to sound off on all of the cringeworthy and downright damaging content that we plus-size women are subject to. It was a much-needed campaign and it helped me feel immeasurably better about myself ― but it’s not enough. These fat-shaming memes need to stop.
I’m not just trying to wag a “woke” finger at the people who feel they’re simply offering some levity in dark times by sharing these memes. I’m here to tell you that by making anyone’s body at any size a punchline, you are potentially doing physical and mental harm.
It is estimated that nearly 30 million Americans will struggle with some form of disordered eating in their lives (including subthreshold disordered behaviors). Surveys show that when bullied, all genders are susceptible to meeting weight-based victimization with binging, fasting, substance abuse, depression and lower-participation in daily activities. So the next time you post a picture of a fat person and imply that gaining weight is the worst possible outcome of this quarantine, realize that you’re not just making a joke or motivating yourself or others to pay attention to eating habits ― you’re also undermining someone else’s self-esteem and overall health.
I’m here to tell you that by making anyone’s body at any size a punchline, you are potentially doing physical and mental harm.
The deluge of fat-shaming memes is also setting a potentially dangerous example for adolescents, who are especially susceptible to these kinds of messages. In fact, 40% to 60% of elementary school-aged girls are already worried about their weight and/or being “too fat” thanks to the weight-loss-centric media that reaches them from the earliest of ages.
Not only does this show that fat phobia is impressed on us from almost the moment we arrive on this planet, but it raises the question of what children are truly being taught when the idea that thin equals beauty is perpetuated. We must realize the responsibility we all have to care for the next generation and we must work to stop this cycle of self-hatred and illness. Part of the solution is refusing to share these kinds of memes.
Perhaps you’ve made it this far in my diatribe and are thinking, “Wow, it’s not that deep! It’s meant to be funny. Just deal with it.” I admit that even in my own family, many people refuse to see or understand why fat shouldn’t equal funny. But since trolling usually says more about the troll than the target, I challenge anyone who wants me to “just deal with it” to consider a few things.
Not everyone will look the way you may want them to ― not even yourself. Quite often the most vitriolic attacks I’ve received as a body image influencer have come from people with overwhelming internalized hate and body dysmorphia. It’s tragic, really. I wish everyone could use this time to finally end the war on our bodies.
What’s more, maybe you should do yourself a favor and “lighten up.” Let go of your fear that you’re not maintaining arbitrary body ideals and just eat the damn cookie. Life is too short ― show yourself and others some compassion. We shouldn’t be expected to spend all this new “free time” in lockdown doing crunches, eating clean and worrying about what we’ll look like when we finally emerge.
So many of us are trying to go on with our lives “as normal” when nothing is normal. This is a time to stay as safe and sane and healthy at home as possible, not a time to feel guilty about food. We need to #FlattentheCurve, instead of worrying about flattening our curves, and we need to support each other, instead of sharing memes that can cause even more pain than we’re already experiencing.
Renee Cafaro is the New York City-based U.S. editor of the international body-positive magazine SLiNK and a plus-size influencer known as @foxyroxyfashion on Instagram. Statistics in this article are sourced from the NEDA website. To learn more about Cafaro, visit www.reneecafaro.com.
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